Want Equity in Schools? How About We Start With Equity in Electing Leaders

White Unions Have Dominated School Board Elections for Decades. It’s Time For Power to Shift to People of Color.    

Did you happen to catch the sad little Facebook dust-up in which a handful of white liberals attempted to explain to mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds why her stance on K-12 education was not what black people should believe?

It was the height of whitesplaining. Lots of use of the word “neo-liberal.” Lots of attempts to convince Levy-Pounds – possibly the Twin Cities most visible civil rights attorney of the moment – that schools that got money from philanthropists could not possibly serve her kids.

There was zero listening. No interest in her family’s experience–and minus zero if it was a good experience outside the traditional system. No interest in the discussion of equity she – a mother who has had children in traditional public, public charter and private schools – attempted to advance. Just political camps organized around tired conspiracy theories holding the status quo out to be the best thing since sliced bread.

It would have been funny if it weren’t such a deafening display of privilege. Adult and white.

Are you ready for something different? Good.

MSP ed-heads, mark your calendars: Depending on which one of our fair cities you vote in, you’ll want to attend one or the other of two upcoming candidate forums focused on K-12 issues.

In St. Paul, at least five of six candidates for school board will be asked to respond to community concerns brought to light by a survey of low-propensity voters conducted by Students for Education Reform — Minnesota.

In Minneapolis, a host of organizations are convening a forum for mayoral candidates focused on how the top contenders will use the city’s ultimate bully pulpit.

Details to follow, but first the why:

The biggest reason why these forums are important is that school boards must represent families – particularly those who depend on the schools to lift their children from poverty — and taxpayers who now pass one millage after another. The mayor has no formal role, but possesses the ability to back a board making bold choices or keep the heat on one that won’t.

If you and I have spent any time at all together understanding education in these Twin Cities, you’ve likely heard me lament the echo-chamber that surrounds K-12 issues in local politics. It’s not an abstract problem. It has resulted in local school boards, which are supposed to push for change, instead digging in and defending the status quo.

And since RT Rybak’s last term, in which he challenged Minneapolis Public Schools leaders to do better, promising them the backing of the city’s most visible elected official, our mayors have nibbled around the edges in terms of education.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, mayoral and city council races and school and park board contests are dominated by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, an organization many feel has strayed from its proud roots. The party in turn clings to an endorsing process that is structured to give the L – labor, including our two teacher unions — a pivotal role while keeping newcomers out.

Because of the prominence of their races, a number of our mayors of recent years have vaulted this process and won with the endorsement, but the gantlet persists in the more hyper-local school and park board races — where voting can be in the single-digits.

A few election cycles ago all kinds of not-the-usual-suspects folks got involved in the Minneapolis School Board election. There was a Somali candidate vetting group. The African American Leadership Forum. AchieveMPLS. A board with ideological diversity was elected.

Alas, that was followed a cycle later by possibly the most bitter Minneapolis board election in recent history, with party elders threatening some of their own candidates for failing to toe the line strictly enough and a tsunami of cash from both sides — like upwards of $500,000.

Last year, well, none of the outsiders — bruised, exhausted, hardened — showed up in either city with the result that both districts now have boards entirely dominated by teacher-union backed members.

St. Paul has never had — at least not in my time — an equivalent outside community vetting process Two years ago, amid a lot of talk among white people about equity, a union-propelled “Caucus for Change” slate was elected by a single-digit slice of eligible voters.

The new guard is hinting at the hard choices it will have to make as a result of its early decision to grant the union huge concessions. No surprise, those tough choices pit those promises of equity against the demands of the wealthy whites who elected the board.

Enter Students for Education Reform Minnesota Action Network, which every year has a cohort of college-aged student-fellows who work on K-12 issues. This year the fellows here identified and surveyed St. Paulites who have a stake in the system but rarely vote about their concerns. The St. Paul board race is hardly a neck-and-neck contest, so the forum will press candidates on their willingness to commit on two issues.

Specifically, the SFER Action Network researchers want to hear about plans to close the 10th-grade literacy gap. Three of 10 St. Paul students read on grade level, according to state scores examined by the group. Closing the reading gap is hard at any age, but by high school it’s a desperate challenge. And yet we know that both central districts are graduating legions of students who can’t read — and who aren’t going to get help catching up once they leave high school.

The other thing SFER Action Network surveyors – who contacted infrequent voters as many times as it took to get a conversation started – identified as a huge problem is school climate. “Students and parents don’t feel comfortable in some St. Paul schools,” said Kenneth Eban, managing director of the group. “Especially the youth community and people of color.”

This is, of course, the third rail of education politics in St. Paul Public Schools. Many teachers balked at former Superintendent Valeria Silva’s race equity efforts and the new board was swept in during an incendiary debate over the discovery of a racially offensive blog a high school special ed teacher wrote about his students.

Accordingly, SFER Action Network is working hard to get the folks it surveyed to its board candidate forum, scheduled for Tuesday, August 29 at 5:00 p.m. at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation building located at the corner of University Avenue and Lexington Parkway. There will be childcare and translation services.

“We have three candidates running until recently unopposed and we have nearly 40,000 students in St. Paul counting on them to make good decisions,” says SFER’s Allison Welch. “We know that it’s not enough for these candidates to want all kids to succeed. We need people who have ideas for strategies that will actually make a difference.”

Across the river, will we end up with a mayor who will advocate for bold changes? Even if she turns out to be the incumbent; Mayor Betsy Hodges’ Children’s Cabinet was a lovely idea, but… we’ve heard crickets on the ed front since her election. What do her opponents think? Outside of Levy-Pounds, we really don’t know.

The Minneapolis mayoral candidate forum is being hosted by nine different groups engaged in education advocacy and/or representing the interests of different racial and ethnic groups. This forum is scheduled to take place at Minneapolis’ North High on September 28 at 6:00 p.m. Click through for Eventbrite tickets.

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